Hip-hop began as a movement of empowerment for black Americans, who had faced centuries of racial and cultural subjugation. From those roots, it’s blossomed into one of the most widely listened genres of music in the world. As it’s popularity has increased, many fear that it will lose, or has already lost it’s original purpose, or that hip hop’s appropriation by non-black cultures will be destructive to the intrinsic “blackness” of rap. These are legitimate fears, and I too worry about the gentrification of hip-hop. However, it’s foolish to assume that hip-hop can only serve as a tool of empowerment for black Americans. I know, because hip-hop empowered me at a time when it was most necessary, and I am decidedly not black.
My entire life, I’ve struggled with social anxiety. My entire life I’ve been a nerd, and for a brief window in my life, I was overweight. Unfortunately for me, all three of those characteristics overlapped when I moved to a new home in Maryland and began middle school. Middle school, for me at least, was like that scene in “The Dark Knight” where the Joker makes three henchman fight to the death with a broken pool cue, except with 300 hundred sociopathic henchman, going through puberty, and still with only one pool cue.
As you’ve probably gathered, middle school did not go well for me. I was bullied on a daily basis. I was bullied because I was overweight, because I was socially awkward, because I dressed like Sheen from Jimmy Neutron, and because I knew that Darth Bane was the first Sith Lord to follow the “Rule of Two.” And because I was so shy, and the idea of conflict made me want to throw up, I never stood up for myself.
I’ve listened to hip-hop for as long as I remember. The first rap album I owned myself was T.I.’s “T.I. vs. T.I.P.(which is underrated, but that’s a story for another article.)” However, I had never connected with it on a substantive level. I was in it for the bangers. Besides, what would I even connect to? I was a lower middle class white kid who spent his days beating ass in the Pokémon trading card game and reading Calvin and Hobbes comics.
That changed on the bus to Piccowaxen middle school, as I was listening to a hip-hop mix tape a friend had put together. This came at the time I was being bullied the most: it had driven me even further within my own thoughts, and I spent my days trying to go as unnoticed, and speaking to as few people as possible. Then, Return of the G, the first track(not counting the short intro before that,) from OutKast’s Aquemini appeared on my first generation iPod.
For the uninformed, Aquemini was Outkast’s third album. Southernplayalisticcaddilacmusik, their first, was an instant southern hip-hop classic, and put the entire region on the map. It was filled with Cadillac’s, wood grained steering wheels, pimping, pretty much everything you would expect from a late 90’s southern hip hop album. But on their second album, ATLiens, OutKast, specifically Andre 3000, took a weird turn. He started dressing eccentrically, including wearing a Turban and stopped drinking and smoking. “No drugs or alcohol so I can keep the signal clear,” he says on the title track. He started rapping about things like space, the Nuwaubian nation, and confronting the consequences of his mortality. Basically, people thought he was insane, and soft.
3000 would address this in Return of the G:
“Return of the gangsta thanks ta’
them niggas that thank think you soft
and say y’all be gospel rappin’
but they be steady clappin’ when you talk about
bitches & switches & hoes & clothes & weed
let’s talk about time travelin’ rhyme javelin
somethin’ mind unravelin’ get down
Return of the gangsta thanks ta’
them niggas who got them kids
who got enough to buy an ounce
but not enough to bounce them kids to the zoo
or to the park so they grow up in the dark never
seein’ light so they end up being like yo’ sorry ass
robbin’ niggas in broad ass daylight get down
Return of the gangsta thanks ta’
them niggas that get the wrong impression of expression
Then the question is Big Boi what’s up with Andre?
Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs? Is he gay?
When y’all gon’ break up? When y’all gon’ wake up?
Nigga I’m feelin’ better than ever what’s wrong with you
you get down!”
Now on that bus to school, I didn’t know any of this context, or even who OutKast was. But what I did hear was a person who was ridiculed, a person who didn’t fit in, saying, “fuck you” and carrying on with his day. He wasn’t obsessing over their criticisms, or letting them control his life. In fact, he turns the tables on them, and wonders what’s wrong with them that they’re so worried about it in the first place. And that’s exactly the message I needed to hear at that moment in my life.
I immediately bought the song as soon as I got home, and would listen to it everyday on the way to school. I still struggled with shyness and bullying, but I had found a way to cope, and to empower myself to start standing up for myself. And once I stopped letting those little bastards attack me with their pool cues and fought back, things started getting better. This is the power that hip-hop has, no matter your background, or your struggle, everybody needs to hear that one song that helps you stick your middle finger in the air. I’m not sure what kind of person I would be today without those early hip-hop albums I would listen to, front to back, on the way to school. They helped me build confidence and gave me the courage to forge an identity for myself, one that I wanted. They also introduced me to a flush of new perspectives on the world, opening my mind and making me a more emphatic person.
Hip-hop should, at its core, remain a tool for black Americans to change the system, shuffle the deck stacked against them. But hip-hop is also art, and art can conjure unforeseen influence and inspiration. This should be embraced, so that kids like me, on the bus to school, can discover the verse that helps change their lives.